Changing limits on political signs panned

The Zoning Commission says a proposal up for a vote next week would gut limits on political signs and leave residents “exposed to increased visual clutter.”

The City-Parish Council on Tuesday is set to vote on lifting a ban on political signs on private property in the city earlier than 90 days before an election.

City-parish government stopped enforcing the prohibition earlier this year when a candidate challenged the time limit as a strike at free speech.

The Zoning Commission on Monday OK’d the proposed changes, but a letter sent to the council Wednesday on behalf of the commission says the issue deserves more discussion.

“The amended law leaves our community exposed to increased visual clutter with candidates for political office having no time limitations on when they may place their signs in advance of an election,” the Zoning Commission wrote.

Commission Chairman Bruce Conque said he understands the constitutional issues but some limitations are needed to keep political signs from cluttering the city year-round.

“The concern was that it removed all limitations, that there were no limits on political signs,” Conque said. “If I was going to run for city-parish president in 2040, I could put up signs right now.”

Conque said the best strategy would be to re-tool the entire sign ordinance, not only the political sign restrictions, and develop regulations the city could enforce without worrying about repeated constitutional challenges.

Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux, who proposed the changes to the sign law, said Wednesday he is open to revisiting the issue but feels political sign regulations need to be addressed immediately, considering there are several active races this fall and campaign signs are already out.

In addition to doing away with the 90-day window to campaign signs, the proposed changes would also raise the size limitations of signs in residential areas from 8 square feet to 32 square feet.

Both the time limit and the size restriction had raised constitutional questions.

Boudreaux said the issue needs to be settled because some candidates had abided by the existing law while others disregarded it.

“The idea to do nothing at this point was not an option for me,” Boudreaux said.

The City-Parish Department of Planning, Zoning and Development sent letters in May to candidates with signs out far ahead of this year’s fall elections, seeking compliance with the local sign law’s 90-day limit.

But city-parish officials backed off enforcement after retired prosecutor Keith Stutes, who is challenging incumbent 15th Judicial District Attorney Mike Harson, questioned whether the time limit on campaign signs is an unconstitutional violation of his and his constituents’ First Amendment right to political expression.

Campaign sign time limits of varying degrees are common throughout the U.S., but City-Parish Attorney Mike Hebert advised councilmen at a meeting last month that the 90-day limit was constitutionally suspect.

Lafayette Roadside Pride, a local beautification group that advocates strong sign laws, ask the council to delay action.

“We will be present Tuesday to urge the council to table these amendments. We need to be sure that any change to signage ordinances is both absolutely necessary to meet constitutional standards and also results in better enforcement of all illegal signage,” the group said in a statement.

Conque said the Zoning Commission will consider launching a study to research a possible overhaul of the sign ordinance.

Boudreaux said he is open to future changes.

“Whatever we do, it has to be something that can be enforced,” Boudreaux said. “Do I have any problems revisiting this again and again? I do not.”